The Victorians were happy and so were the people – sort of. An estimated 243,000 allotments by 1873 meant that one in three labourers had a piece of land to grow vegetables amongst the Dark Satanic Mills. The other two out of three no doubt continued to fight, steal and starve, as the clergy who pushed for land reforms always feared they would.
Altruism,eccentricity and social reform aside, you can count on the British for two things: the weather is our number one topic of conversation, and we think there’s nothing quite like a good war to sort things out. Franz Ferdinand did more than launch a World War: he also thrust the carrot, the parsnip and the cabbage into the limelight.
Wars send young men off to a foreign field to knock seven shades of shit out of each other,leaving behind women, children and old geezers with empty fields, empty shelves and no handy banana boats for their dinner. Cue the First World War Victory Gardens, when the UK Government commissioned 1,500,000 back gardens and allotments to grow food for the masses.
It was a huge patriotic success with everyone doing his or her bit for the war effort. Hooray for vegetables and three cheers to the masses! And then the war ended and the Government quietly took all the land back whilst everyone Charlestoned and bobbed their way into the Jazz Age. Who needs patriotism when the Great War was the war to end all wars? Flowers are far prettier after all, and one Austrian a century is quite enough upheaval for anyone.
To be fair to the British Government they did pass a series of Parliamentary Acts in the 20s to strengthen the allotment – provision for annual rents, jurisdiction in the form of committees and local authority responsibility. From the 20s onwards you could keep hens and rabbits on your allotment and put up a shed. The shed is a wonderful place to listen to the radio of a wet autumn afternoon, particularly when the second Austrian of the century decides to turn the world on its head.
With German U-boats on the shore and rationing removing the daily egg and bacon for breakfast, the allotment once more was a saviour for the masses. There were nearly 2 million Dig for Victory allotments during the Second World War,producing a staggering 1,300,000 tonnes of food per year. And once again, the Government took back the extra allotments after the war.
The Act states that local councils must provide alternate land if they take allotment space back. Most allotments in the UK are on the side of a hill or down by the railway cuttings – they were never going to be prime real estate in the first place – and “replacement land” doesn’t specify the actual presence of earth. There are an awful lot of deserted car parks and bombsites in the UK...